USMNT: Frustrating Game against Belgium Leaves U.S. with More Questions than Answers

September 7, 2011

Deploying a 4-3-3 again, the Jurgen Klinsmann led U.S. national team once again controlled play early, looked solid in possession, and lost. Similar to the Costa Rica game played late last week, the United States looked good for the 1st 30 minutes as they knocked the ball around, found space and worked out of tight space. Then, just as against Costa Rica, as the match wore on, the gaps between the midfield and the lone forward made transition difficult, if not impossible, and the game swung back to our opponent. And despite some heroic saves from U.S. Wundergoalie Tim Howard, the Belgians hit the back of the net and spent the remainder of the game absorbing pressure as the U.S. struggled to find quality chances.

Klinsmann has spent a great deal of time over his few weeks as manager of the U.S. team talking about developing a style of play and emphasizing attacking football. However, one wonders, is it worth playing aesthetically pleasing football if the end result is still the same? The one thing I think Bob Bradley got right in his reign was realizing that the U.S. was best suited for playing solid defense and then counterattacking when the moment presented itself. While Bradley did this ad nauseam, playing two holding midfielders even against weak CONCACAF teams and showing little tactical flexibility opening it up in those games, against top international squads it seems foolish to try and match them talent for talent.

What formation should the U.S. use?

In the 4-3-3 with one holding midfielder, Maurice Edu, Jose Torres acting as the playmaker and one attacking midfielder tucked under the forwards (Donovan in the Costa Rica game, Dempsey against Belgium) the U.S. looked crisp moving the ball around. However, they generated few good looks at the Costa Rican or Belgian net as a reward for all of their possession. In the 2nd half of the Belgium game, Klinsmann, in response to several dangerous Belgian attacks in the last 15 minutes of the 1st half, inserted a 2nd defensive midfielder in Kyle Beckermann and pushed Jose Torres underneath the forward. While the U.S. looked much better defensively as a result, and continued to knock the ball around well, Torres was much less involved in the run of play. In both of Klinsmann’s variations of the 4-3-3 our lone striker (1st Altidore, then Agudelo in the 2nd half) was isolated from the rest of the attack. Neither is good enough to play on an island. In addition, our wide midfielders, playing more as traditional wingers, remained isolated. When they got the ball, they could seldom find the lone forward (who was often triple teamed) and were forced to play the ball back to the defenders, or through the holding midfielders. While this type of possession can result in chances on goal if the outside backs join the attack when switching the field, it rarely happened. And when it did, the central midfielders failed to flood the box and the service was less below average.

In the games the U.S. has played best, they have deployed a 4-2-2-2, or a 4-2-3-1. With two forwards, the U.S. can better hold the ball up and wait for the outside attacking midfielders to get up the field. In the 4-2-3-1, (I realize a subtle change from the 4-3-3 variation Klinsmann deployed in the 2nd half) the 3 attacking midfielders can flood past the forward and are therefore very difficult to pick up defensively. The difference between the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3 Klinsmann used in the 2nd half against Belgium is that in the 4-2-3-1, the outside attacking midfielders play more narrowly so they can provide support to the central attacking midfielder and lone forward. The 4-2-3-1 formation was the one Bob Bradley stumbled into using shortly before he was sacked. With outside attacking midfielders like Donovan and Dempsey, who like to play narrow and cut inside anyways, this can be a much more effective formation than with natural wide players like Shea and Rogers who hugged the touchline and remained on their own islands for much of the game.

The only problem with the 4-2-3-1 is that it would seem to limit the role of Torres, who has appeared to be a revelation in the Klinsmann era. Handcuffed in Bob Bradley’s system of two holding midfielders, Torres’ style of play simply didn’t fit in. Under Klinsmann, Torres has flourished, distributing, working back to get the ball, drawing dozens of fouls as he works out of tight space and even tracking back defensively. If Klinsmann opts to stick with two holding midfielders, it might be worth a look at Torres at that position as well, with a player like Adu, Dempsey or Donovan playing as the attacking midfielder/withdrawn forward.

The only other viable solution would be going to a straight 4-4-2 and using a combination of Bradley, Edu, Torres or Stuart Holden as center midfielders on a traditional “pulley” system where one goes forward while the other tucks in defensively. This would give players like Bradley and Edu, who have proved they can score goals in the best leagues in Europe, more freedom to go forward, while not sacrificing defensively. Torres and Holden could also go forward in this type of system although their contribution would be much more geared towards distribution than scoring.

Under Klinsmann, it has been clear the Americans have looked a better attacking side. The next step is figuring out how to keep this style while winning games.

John D. Halloran

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